The CLUAS Archive: 1998 - 2011

Beijing Beat


The Infadels were the latest of the upcoming British acts flown in from London for the Bacardi Sino Sessions, the series of concerts in Beijing and Shanghai promoting the American rum with the bat logo. When we arrived at the Star Live (the 1,000-capacity venue which hosted Sonic Youth last month) for the latest installment in series support act Kela Kela, also from London, was winding down its beat-boxy set. Unfortunately much of the between-sets exodus didn’t return and the Infadels played dancey, full-hearted tunes like Love Like Semtex and Stories From the Bar to a half-empty, but lively, house. Their set and sound justified the comparisons with fellow disco rockers Primal Scream.

Overseeing the evening was Nathaniel Davis, one of the partners in China-based promotions company Spli-t. The affable American, who handpicked the London-based Infadels for the trip to China, is getting a reputation for professionalism, particularly since a well-run Sonic Youth tour. The Bacardi Sessions is one of two drinks-sponsored music events Davis has managed, the other being a Chivas DJ tour of China’s clubs. This diehard U2 fan has been spending Bacardi’s money well - he hired Beijing’s best sound-man, another relocated American music professional, Jamie Welton, to oversee sonic quality of the Infadels show. Good sound is often a rarity at Beijing gigs, hence Welton is routinely called on by major visiting acts coming to Beijing and Shanghai.

The Infadels came running on to crash into a solid set of their synth pop rock. The band was up for it so more shame the punters didn’t show. A half capacity crowd split 60-40 in expats compared to locals. That’s disappointing, considering Bacardi Sino Sessions are all about getting more Chinese to drink Bacardi. There were no queues at the numerous bars at the Star Live – punters exchanged RMB20 coupons for Bacardi-only drinks. RMB20 was a good deal for a Bacardi Breezer or the ironically named Cuba Libre – named no doubt for the flack Bacardi got for calling its rum Cuban – the company abandoned the island for America some time ago. 

Downstairs however, in the huge Tango nite-club, Bacardi seemed to be shifting a lot of volume. Throughout the building, glass display cases of Bacardi bottles, spot lit and set in copious amounts of red velvet carpet were making the point. A Porsche, a couple of mini-Coopers and plenty of BMWs by the door suggested there’s plenty of money about – so the RMB120 ticket price for the Infadels show would have been inconsequential - but the well flaunted money kicking about is apparently for venues like Tango, which play a mix of international and Mando pop hits while showy patrons alternate between the dance floor and sets of tables laden with drink and cigarettes. That’s a night out for Chinese, followed by afters at Jindingxuan, the 24-hour dim sum restaurant next door. Rock, even with cheap rum, is still a minority taste in the People’s Republic.

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The music business has been truly stirred and shaken, and nowhere more so than China, where a handful of state sector of labels are having to co-exist with international majors who have snapped up most of the bankable stars. But everyone is being screwed by piracy. Now, into the gap has stepped Access China Media Solutions, a Chinese company specializing in developing music and gaming technology for mobile phone. Formed as a joint venture between Japan-based software developer Access Co., Ltd., and Seattle-headquartered Melodeo, Inc, in early 2006, the company develops technologies and solutions designed to enable the secure delivery of music and video for the Web and mobile phone.

 Melodeo’s success at delivering music content to mobile users in the US, and its credibility in the music world – the company’s Senior Director of Media Content is Dave Dederer, founding member of rock band The Presidents of the United States of America - probably helped Access China to land an unspecified injection of cash lately from both Sony BMG and Warner. The deal means Access China Media Solutions builds a “platform” of secure technology through which the labels can sell their music downloads to PC and mobile phone users in China.

So Chinese music fans get a more cool, user friendly experience that other providers don’t offer. And music companies get “a secure, economically viable way to distribute their content in China and throughout the world,” as the press releases announcing the deal suggests they’ve been desperately seeking. “Piracy of both physical CDs and online digital music has made these efforts difficult over the past decade.” No surprise there.

Mobile phone networks are, goes the logic, more secure, and have a built-in payment system – you pay for your downloads in your monthly phone bill. Approached yesterday at a technology conference in Beijing Wayne Zhang, the bespectacled, quietly spoken CEO of Access China Media Solutions said the team-up will unleash a “new wave” in the world wide music business. “Together we have the content, proven technologies, and network operators' support to ensure that wireless customers can get their music and multimedia entertainment content the way they want it, whenever and wherever.”

Yet for all Zhang’s promise of nourishing “a vibrant, legitimate digital music business in China” and helping “…recording artists and songwriters by ensuring that they are properly compensated for their work,” the new Access deal seems to be mostly about building the advantage of the global players in China. Both of the big labels are already licensing music to web portals and mobile content providers in China.  

Sony BMG has said in a few thousand interviews and announcements that it’s “excited” about the market for distributing its international and Mandarin repertoire on mobile phones in China. The first of the major labels to open a Chinese representative office (in 2000) Warner was also the first to strike a deal with a Chinese mobile operator to distribute its whole catalogue – it struck an agreement with China Mobile in 2006.

Given Access and Melodeo’s software know how and the vast content banks of the two labels, the deal could be the key to the regional music market. China after all boasts the world’s largest mobile subscription base – almost 500 million users. Delivering digital music and entertainment safely and making money hasn’t always been easy though. While the country boasts nearly 500 million mobile subscribers it’s been a real headache to get everyone onboard: the operators China Mobile and second player China Unicom are often greedy about their slice of the fee from each play. Most mobile phones are made in China but handset and device manufacturers have proven stubborn and slow on innovating since low cost phones sell fastest (and are easiest to make) in China. Content providers, application developers and artists meanwhile have all got their own issues over slices from the pie. Content providers have been accused of ganging up to force lower prices on to labels and musicians.

Using a strategy that we’ve seen here before – China as a “potentially huge market” and a cheap testing ground (talent and business costs are cheap here but consumers’ incomes smaller) - if the arrangement is successful here it could be rolled out to other territories. But success is a big ‘if’ in China, where concepts like copyright and intellectual property remain foreign to many. Sony BMG and Warner will no doubt also be talking to the dozens of websites offering downloads for free and the thousands of Beijing shops jammed with bootleg CDs and DVDs will first have their say.

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In other ways China is increasingly plugging into the worldwide concert network.  

The seven-continent Live Earth concert series which begins in Sydney, Australia, will hit Shanghai as well as Tokyo before going on to South Africa – count the carbon footprint of all those jet-flying tour crews. Part of a campaign led by the Al Gore-connected

Alliance for Climate Protection and other NGOs. Gore is a “Partner” of the Live Earth concert, language which makes the whole venture sound suspiciously like a corporate convention. Here’s more corporate speak: “Live Earth is being produced globally by Control Room, the firm led by Kevin Wall which has “produced and distributed” more than 60 concerts since its founding in 2005 featuring Beyonce, Madonna, Green Day and the Rolling Stones, among others. Is this Control Room’s way of dipping its toe into the China market? Interestingly, there’s a law in China which forbids artists performing on benefit gigs from getting paid. So while Al Gore’s connections may facilitate the mountain of licenses you need for a gig like this in China it’s going to be very interesting to see if and how the concert will make any money here. Considering that the currently very hot Linkin Park are scheduled to play, there will have to be money involved. The band has long had ambitions to play China, where it has a sizeable following, but will Live Earth be a repeat of the Great Wall concert a few year ago, at which ever-hot Alicia Keys and Cyndi Lauper played a disastrously under-attended and badly organized show in a stunning location? The money was supposed to come from the TV rights but quality issues mean that never got aired, and several lawsuits are apparently winding their way through US courts over fees and broken promises. I remember the Great Wall concert as much for catching the last acts sitting in one of the empty VIP armchairs up front - they emptied of invited Communist Party bigwigs and Army brass as the night wore on and got colder – so we wrapped up in the blankets provided and rued our paying 40 euros for the tickets when we could have picked up one of hundreds at the gate for about 5 euros. Tread carefully, Live Earth…

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 A Monday night and an RMB350 ticket price to a rock concert in a club over a karaoke bar, next door to a dim sum restaurant. The taxi driver knew the dim sum restaurant – that’s how I found the club. Rushing to get there early, expecting big traffic jams – it’s Sonic Youth – you get a jolt on remembering hey, this is China and no more than one percent of this city of 17 million know who or what Sonic Youth are or that they’re playing in China’s capital tonight.

For those in the know, inside the Star Live, it was an it-event. Local godfather of yaogun (rock n roll) Cui Jian arrived wearing trademark red star baseball cap and army fatigues with a gaggle of wrinkling maybe groupies (his early 1990s period?) in tow. Like many of the local musicians he was in the house to see what he can learn. Down on the stage there were glitches, like when a blonde, catty looking Kim Gordon was left swearing after the mike failed to work for half her first song. She recovered and danced and demanded attention like a grunge goddess should.

"We've waited a long time for this," said shaggy haired guitarist Thurston Moore by way of greeting. He’s surely one of the few rock stars who changes his guitar but not the strap – the man is too tall. A lot of the pre-concert banter among the foreign fans was worries the group would go all experimental on Beijing and send everyone home. They didn’t. After opening with Candle from Daydream Nation and then followed it with another crowd pleaser, Incinerate. For much of the rest of the way it was mostly the best of the rest of the band’s long career, including plenty more from well received Daydream Nation album. To signal their approval the crowd dispatched a pair of long johns, of the kind beloved of most Chinese men, to the stage. There was plenty of applause and a couple of crowd surfs when Thurston got back to the mike for more head-bopping stuff. Like Teenage Riot for the first encore.

The band dedicated Kool Thing to "our friends Carsick Cars," adding, "sorry you couldn't perform." Local support act Carsick Cars had mysteriously been blocked from playing. Ministry of Culture’s orders, said the doorman when we asked on arrival at the venue. Others whispered it was something to do with Sonic Youth – not Carsick Cars – having played the Free Tibet concerts. A youthful love-them-or-hate them group of Beijingers, Carsick Cars even got a mention in the state press, as the locals lucky enough to play for superstars Sonic Youth, which made the late ban an even ruder surprise for the group, which learned their trade off bootleg Sonic Youth albums in Beijing school dorms.

Those in situ for the 8pm Carsick Cars slot were left waiting till 9.30pm, when Sonic Youth took the stage. Noone had thought to put a poster up on the door or to send a someone out with a bullhorn – a common sight at Chinese tourist sites and train stations. It was one of those elephant-in-the-corner moments when the powers that be in China put their foot down and no one wants to talk about it. It’s probably also down to the lousy service and lack of customer awareness that characterizes a lot of restaurants here.

Anyway, the lack of an opening act left time to buy beer and the red t-shirts with a masked Asian-looking nurse’s face which were produced by the concert’s local production company Split-T. Left overs from the band’s Nurse tour, said someone in the know. A steal for foreigners at RMB100 (ten euros) but you’ll get three tshirts in some of Beijing’s markets for that.

All the musicians present, like Xiao Rong from punks Brain Failure, were delighted that Sonic Youth were in Beijing. But most were all agreed the band wouldn’t be making any money off the dates. “Flight cases,” says Xiao Rong. Brain Failure travel take their guitars as carry on luggage and borrow amps and drums when they tour. Sonic Youth and NOFX, which played Beijing shortly before, carry a few trailer loads of gear wherever they fly. Payable if you have a string of dates in 5,000 – 10,000 capacity venues, but not in China where the clubs the band played fit no more than 2,000 people.  

Still, this was probably the first time Beijing has filled a decent venue for a decent international rock act. Suede played a third-filled Chaoyang Gymnasium in 2003 and the following year Deep Purple were giving away tickets outside another fairly ill-suited venue -the Worker's Gymnasium - for their loss-making show. The Rolling Stones and James Brown in the past year played money-mad Shanghai, to 90 percent expat turn-outs.

Despite some local press and blogs calling the crowd at 80 percent Chinese, the Sonic Youth Beijing show was more like 60 percent foreign, 40 percent local. The security took tickets and then employed elaborate infra-red torches to check people back in after a trip to the toilet.

What it all means is hard to tell. Consider that a full day’s music at Beijing’s Midi experimental music festival (of which more anon) costs RMB50, the show was more a came-and-be seen moment rather than a came-and-conquered-China event. It was a great show, but my favourite memory is of local lecturer and music guru Michael Petis – he runs the D-22 club and hired Sonic Youth as a house band for a club in New York in the 1980s – waiting outside with a spare ticket to pass on to one of the many Chinese musicians who couldn’t afford the ticket price.

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From after-show beers and bowls of jiaozi in Beijing to budget hotel rooms, stuffy tour buses and MTV appearances in America, Brain Failure have come a long way. After ten years of swinging their way up the greasy pole of Chinese rock, Brain Failure are international rock stars, complete with lyrics worthy of parental advisory stickers and exhaustion-induced tour cancellations.

Now singing in English, they’ve been on MTV, ABC and numerous Japanese TV stations. They’ve even been on Chinese national TV. The Brain Failure boys took some time of from their China Tour to do a fashion shoot for Trends Magazine, a local glossy lifestyle magazine promoting the gentrification of China. Looking cool, hair-gelled and, well, rock stars, the Trends-endorsed Brain Failure also feature posters given away to early buyers of the band’s Beijing To Boston DVD produced by American label Interpunk.

Despite their poster-boy status Brain Failure haven’t given up entirely on the anarchaic spirit of punk as represented by the Sex Pistols and the Ramones. There’s a line “Won’t you see my daddy in the KTV” sung to sound suspiciously like a request for late night oral fooling about. Naughty but nice. The Clash it ain’t but the band does address deeper issues: like the alienation and stigma of being a Chinese punk rocker, in ‘No Dirty Punx’ and the excitement and bewilderment of pre-Olympics Beijing: ‘2008.’


Now touring abroad as often as they’re at home in China, Brain Failure have the look of confidence and self-satisfaction about them. True, the band knows better than most other Chinese bands how to put on a show. A cloud of steam rose from a heaving, roaring crowd at the Club 13 recently as the band blasted through a 90 minute set of mostly new songs. It was part homecoming, part launch party for the band’s new CD, Coming Down to Beijing.


It seemed strange to hear lead singer Xiao Rong ‘s between-song banter in Chinese. Everything else about this outfit – and its songs – was American, including the lyrics, staccato blasts of cheeky, hoary English sung in a laboriously American twang by vocalist Xiao, whose trademark cropped and died leopard skin hairdo forms the cover art for the new CD.


The crowd loved it. Outside the merchandising stall did a brisk trade in band t-shirts, arm bands and CDs, all bearing the disctinctive bi-lingual Brain Failure logo in neatly chiseled script hanging over a diamond shape. Inside a group of Chinese and foreign girls at a table above the mosh pit wore their pink Brain Failure t-shirts tight, dangling cigarettes and arching forward to take photos.


On stage, the band looked cocky enough to deserve the attention of groupies. Bassist Ma Jilang goaded the crowd surfers near the stage to do their worst. Guitarist Dee Dee Wang Jian – the name appendage is a mark of respect to the Ramones – poses and drummer Xu Lin bangs his drums like a sledge hammer on bricks. Talking between post-show bottles of beer Xu explains how he soaked up plenty of sticks tricks from drummers and drum technicians – “I didn’t know what that term meant before” - during long stints playing and recording in the US and Japan.


Xu had the services of several drum technicians, credited in the album sleeve notes, when the band recorded at The Outpost, the producer being Ken Casey of Dropkick Murphys, a Pogues-inspired Irish-American punk outfit with a growing fan base in North America and Europe.  That’s good company to be keeping for an ambitious punk band. Brain Failure is one. "Coming Down To Beijing” features a guest appearance from Dicky Barrett of The Mighty Mighty Bosstones, a cult favourite on American college radio.


Dropkick Murphys’ Mark Orell plays organ on "Fall In Love 2008" while horns were added by good friends and tourmates Big D & The Kids Table, with whom Brain Failure co-released a CD of both bands’ songs. Similarly, when Brain Failure played the Punk Spring 07' Festival, one of the biggest punk rock festivals in Japan it was with international names, and friends, the Dropkick Murphys, NOFX and Jimmy Eat World. A Japanese manager and record label, Bad News Records, have yielded the band plenty of gigs in Tokyo.


But how Chinese is Brain Failure anymore? Not very. And maybe that’s the point. After a decade playing Beijing’s limited circuit of rock bars, the band sees its future in more lucrative territories. Aside from singing in a language most of their compatriots don’t speak, the band recently hosted a show from legendary punk club CBGB's in New York which aired on MTV China, a show accessible to only a minority of fee-paying Chinese TV viewers. The band recorded new versions of two of their most successful songs for Turn on the Distortion, a CD only available in Japan.

The band has even succumbed to the classic proof of cock-rock stardom: burn – out. Some of the upcoming China tour dates were cancelled due to health reasons. “The band is resting and will be on the road in no time,” explained the group’s American press officer, Josh Smith to excuse a string of concert cancellations in late 2006. The group could be excused. After five months recording and busing around America with the likes of legendary carousers like the Dropkick Murphys, Against All Authority and Rat City Riot, the group deserved a rest.




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Muma’s World

Written off for dead, art rockers Muma has a new album in the works


In spring time

Teachers are all dead

Muma arrives in revelry


In darkness

Continuous dancing steps

Give out decadent looks

In the whole festival

The subsequent thing is up to you

"Dancing Step" by Muma


Muma Chinese rock bandJeroen Groenewegen spent six hours at Amsterdam airport convincing uniformed Dutch immigration police to release a band just off the afternoon flight from Beijing. A mix-up about the purchase of air tickets meant that Muma didn’t have time to get their visas right. The military police eventually let them go, after an awful lot of convincing. It was so rock and roll, the way Groenewegen recalls it. “Musicians are not known for their talents for applying for visas or arranging airline tickets. They just want to play their music.”


Fresh from the airport, Muma rocked the Melkweg, a club which has hosted a who’s who of international rock acts. “They gave a great show,” says Groenewegen, one of the organizers of Amsterdam’s China Festival in the autumn of 2005. While freeing the second band from the arrivals hall Groenewegen missed the first gig, by Chinese glam rockers Second Hand Rose.


A hall full of Dutch rock fans swayed to dark rockers like Dancing Step and Party. But you could hear a pin drop in the roomy Melkweg when Xie Qiang and keyboardist Feng Lei came to the piano for Fei Fei Rong. On the band’s Jelly Empire alblum the song comes across as a crackly love paen to Xie’s wife and baby, proof that Muma could be sweet as well as sour. There’s something about the Muma sound which in its maturity sets it apart from the band’s peers.


Maybe some credit is due to the foreign production teams - a previous album was mastered in Australia – but Muma has been more comfortable than most other Chinese bands at integrating, Radiohead-style, electronic and vocal tinkerings that other Chinese bands have use as add-ons to cover something lacking in their own sound.


Often compared to those dealers in darkness, Joy Division, Muma is still around because of its songwriting class. Like Xie Tianxiao, with whom they shared the stage at the 2006 Beijing Pop Festival, Muma is an act that stands on the quality of its songwriting. Penning mournful tunes of youthful love, break ups and reunions the band set a high mark with their 1999 debut album, Muma. Existential ponderings like Boggling became underground hits.


Nearly ten years together and doing press for their fourth album (it will be released in May) the original members of Muma met in Beijing in the mid-90s, when they studied at Beijing Midi Music School and swapped Doors and Joy Division tapes. Vocalist and guitarist Xie Qiang dropped a chance to follow his father into the railway company in Hunan province, hitching a ride to Beijing instead where, 17 and broke, he swopped slices of Guns & Roses and Iggy Pop with bassist Cao Cao, from Sichuan.


There’s Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd guitars and a lot of the lyrical darkness of Nick Cave and Tom Waits in Xie’s lyrics, all written in poetic form. There was religion in the mix too. Zhjiang-born drummer Hu Hu was a devout Buddhist taken to meditating before band practice.


After a debut gig in 1998 at the now-defunct Howl Bar the three southerners had a band and gigged in bars across town. “Music was a wall to keep out the more mundane things of life. We didn’t have any money, but we didn’t want to do covers in bars. Playing music is really too profound for that...” says Xie, who got his biggest gig at last year’s Beijing Pop Festival, opening for Placebo. Muma got the gig after after signing to the Rock for China label, a subsidiary of the festival organizer. That meant walking out on Modern Sky, the group’s long-time label, a topic the band is shy to discuss.


The third album “Pudding Empire” was the band’s coming of age. Slickly produced and packaged, but for the pointless alternative versions of the ballad FeiFei Run and the remix, the album has become a staple of most Chinese rock collections. It was also the most upbeat work by a band now older and, in Xie Qiang’s case, a father.


Whatever about the gloomy lyrics, it’s facile to present Muma as the voice of a new breed of angsty Chinese youth, as many local music writers have done. Well-coiffed and dressed in shades of beige, green and brown with jeans and stripey t-shirts, the band stand amidst urban weeds under a night sky in a poster inserted in the sleeve of Jelly Empire. Muma look like models for one of the cookie-cutter Hong Kong clothing brands beloved of China’s youth who, like many of their Asian peers, pass weekends in shopping centres and karaoke bars rather than reading Kurt Cobain or Nietzche.


Confirming the group’s respectability, Muma has also been usurped as the name of a Beijing toymaker supplying learning aids to school children. Literally, Muma in Chinese means wooden horse. The name represents that of a carrousel horse, says Xie. “It symbolizes the joy of one's childhood, as well as the way your mind moves all the time when you’re growing up.”


In that very Chinese fondness to put people and phenomena into generations, Chinese rock is three generational. Cui Jian and Tang Dynasty were the first generation. Dou Wei, He Yong were the second generation. Always influential, Muma stand with Second Hand Roses and Brain Failure as most enduring of the third and latest generation of stars. A new crop of bands like Carsick Cars, Retros and Lonely China Day are claiming ground and will likely be boxed off as the fourth generation of a still-nascent rock scene.


After that Amsterdam adventure Hu Hu left the band. Back in Amsterdam Jeroen Groenewegen remembers shepherding Muma through the delights and bureaucracies of Amsterdam. “I even had to fish one of the members of the band out of the Vondel Park. He had eaten so many mushrooms he thought he was dead.” Now that’s rock and roll.

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